For the first two and a half years of Darin Erstad's tenure, he worked hard to inspire confidence in his team in late situations. When the Huskers needed a rally, he'd gather the team and try to muster an inspirational speech to get them jump-started.
But Wednesday, with his squad down 6-3 to Ohio State in the bottom of the ninth of NU's Big Ten Tournament opener, he didn't say a word. He knew he didn't need to.
Erstad's instincts proved to be correct. The Huskers used a series of walks to load the bases and force in a run, then Pat Kelly drove in a pair with a single and Tanner Lubach hit a walk-off sacrifice fly to center to give Nebraska the 7-6 win.
"I don't have to say anything. They believe," Erstad said. "We spent two and a half years trying to get them to believe in themselves, but you can only talk so much. Once they do it and they smell it and taste it and get confidence doing that… we took our growing pains to get to that point, but boy, I don't have to say anything anymore… They've got that little thing, they know what it takes and they rally the troop around themselves."
The win was Nebraska's sixth walk-off of the year, including its third over Ohio State. The Huskers will face Michigan State at 5 p.m. Thursday.
Things looked grim for Nebraska after a disastrous fourth inning. After blazing through the first three frames, Chance Sinclair hit a wall in the fourth, and Bob Greco struggled to stop the bleeding when he replaced the NU starter. When the frame finally ended, Ohio State had amassed a commanding six runs on six hits.
The Huskers fought back in the fifth, scoring three runs on four hits, including RBI knocks by Kelly and Jake Placzek. But the offense disappeared from there, as Nebraska didn't put a single base runner on during the next three innings.
The bullpen kept the Huskers in the game during that stretch. Luke Bublitz, Jeff Chesnut and Austin Christensen combined to shut the Buckeyes out over the game's final five innings, setting up NU's heroics in the ninth.
"They understand the momentum," Erstad said of NU's relievers. "We get a three-spot (in the fifth inning), and sometimes in those situations, you tend to lose your focus. We've done a really good job of not losing our edge and not walking people and still playing really good defense. We were able to shut down a couple of times. They got huge, huge outs to get that momentum."
Ben Miller led off the ninth with a walk, Steven Reveles was hit by a pitch and Ryan Boldt walked to load the bases. Christian Cox struck out looking, but Michael Pritchard walked to force in a run. Kelly then poked a single back up the middle to tie the game, and, after an intentional walk to Blake Headley, Lubach hit a drive to center to bring in Pritchard from third.
"At no point in the game did I think we were going to lose," Kelly said. "When they put up a six-spot, we just have to chip away. We can't be heroes. There's not a six-run home run out there."
Nebraska has made a habit out of manufacturing late-inning magic this year, and it never came at a more critical time than Wednesday. A loss would have put NU in the losers' bracket and put the Huskers behind the eight ball pitching-wise.
But Nebraska's confidence never wavered, and the Huskers were able to come away with yet another heart-attack-inducing victory.
"This team never quits," Pritchard said. "We're going to grind and fight until the end."
Second baseman Pat Kelly: Fresh off a walk-off home run Monday in Nebraska's regular-season finale, Kelly had the most clutch hit of the game, a two-run single in the ninth. He finished the day 3-for-5 with a trio of RBIs and made a few major-league-worthy defensive plays at second.
Catcher Tanner Lubach: The junior has a flair for the dramatic in the Big Ten Tournament. It was Lubach who hit the walk-off home run against Indiana in the conference tournament last year, and he added to his legend with the walk-off sacrifice fly Wednesday.
Relievers Jeff Chesnut and Austin Christensen: The duo combined to allow just one base runner over the game's final four innings, as each pitched two frames. Their work set the table for NU's late heroics.
Around the horn
***Nebraska became just the third team to win a game after trailing after eight innings at TD Ameritrade Park in 125 such games.
***Pritchard committed a fielding error in the second inning, his first of the season and just the second of his career (the first came in 2012).
***Bublitz made just his third appearance since Feb. 22, and Chesnut pitched for the first time since April 9.
***Austin Darby struck out a season-high three times.